Celebrated South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius has been convicted of culpable homicide. He was found not guilty of premeditated murder on Thursday but later found guilty of the lesser charge for firing four shots into a locked bathroom door, killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, last year on Valentine’s Day. Now Pistorius faces five to 15 years in prison. Judge Thokozile Masipa will announce his sentence in October.
The Pistorius case, along with the high-profile Ray Rice case dominating headlines this week, reminds us that domestic violence in sports is not uncommon.
In July 2014 Wales rugby star Ian Gough was found guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, former Miss Wales Sophia Cahill. In 2013 baseball star Milton Bradley was found guilty of spousal battery and making criminal threats against his wife with a gun. In 2013 Liverpool soccer player Raheem Sterling was arrested for allegedly attacking his then-girlfriend, 19-year-old model Shana Ann Rose Halliday, after an argument over a text message. The case against him eventually collapsed because Halliday refused to testify.
We’ve seen the uproar over the Rice situation, with nearly everyone in America taking sides either to condemn or to defend Ray Rice and second-guess Janay Rice—and calls are getting louder by the day for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to lose his job.
As the NFL and Baltimore Ravens franchise play a high-profile game of passing the buck over when they actually received the now infamous tape that shows Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee, we saw similar reactions in South Africa surrounding the Pistorius case. Pistorius’ Twitter account has been super active during the trial, quoting biblical passages and offering words of encouragement in support of Pistorius in his time of legal jeopardy. Whoever is posting even used a quote by legendary tennis player and humanitarian Arthur Ashe to remind people to forgive—leading me to ask, how low-down do you have to be to use the words of a great man like Ashe to support your attempt to portray yourself as a victim when on trial for killing your girlfriend?
In the tradition of George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson, a Support for Oscar website surfaced pretty quickly following his arrest, with a description that reads, “Oscar Pistorius—athlete, ambassador, inspiration—innocent until proven guilty,” and yet leaves off “killer” as a descriptor.
Therein lies the rub. People are so obsessed with sports figures that any actions that disrupt their perception of athletes’ heroics are dismissed, even by those who should understand the most. Countless fans, including women, wore Rice jerseys at Thursday night’s Ravens game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And fans were cheering for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who faced accusations of sexual assault just a few years ago. As I watched the game last night, I wondered, what is wrong with this picture?
Rice and Pistorius have very different lives but do have something in common: They are celebrated athletes involved in high-profile cases of violence against women whom they claim to love. While many fans and players are railing against what Rice and Pistorius have done, there are just as many professing their unyielding support for the two athletes. Why is this?
We don’t value women in sports culture, which is a microcosm of society. The fact that we need Title IX in the first place highlights this fact. The amount of violence suffered by women at the hands of men is an example. In terms of domestic violence, 1 in 3 women in the United States will become a victim during her lifetime, and overwhelmingly at the hands of a man. In terms of race, black women are being killed by intimate partners at alarming rates, and overwhelmingly by gun violence.
The same is true in South Africa, where a woman is killed in a domestic violence incident every eight hours and the rate of intimate-partner killings of women is five times higher than the global average, according to the International Business Times: “To put that figure into perspective, there are more than seven times as many murders in South Africa than there are in the US, and the country has a population of just 51 million—compared with 317 million in the States. Statistically speaking, Steenkamp was one of three women killed by an intimate partner on Valentine’s Day in the country.”
Here and abroad, women’s bodies are devalued, which is one of the reasons that violence against women is so prevalent. As I’ve said before, whenever women’s bodies intersect with dominant-culture industries—plantations, entertainment, pro sports, sex work—it doesn’t bode well for women. All the more reason that sports culture has to get a handle on violence against women, especially domestic violence.
The statistics with regard to violence against women in everyday society are off the charts. And it’s not just professional sports. On some American college campuses, a third of all reported rapes involve male athletes, who represent less than a third of all males on campus. What’s wrong with this picture?
Although it looks like Pistorius, who is still out on bail and has been since the killing, could evade jail time (the judge can sentence him to house arrest or long-term parole), there is a much bigger problem at hand. Domestic violence is epidemic in our society, and those we hold in the highest esteem, like star athletes, should not be let off of the hook because they excel in sports. And violence against women should not be the status quo in sports—even if it’s a celebrated female athlete doing it.
Zero tolerance has to be it for violence against women in sports, especially when it involves intimate partnerships. The risk of injury or death is too high for domestic partners, especially women of color. Sports culture has a domestic violence problem, and we need to end it. Period.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.